Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wildlife Author Talks Not To Be Missed

Wild Turkey at Tinicum. Watercolor, from 2008, by Ken Januski.
Wouldn't you  know  that after operating in the darkness, or so it seemed, in regards to wildlife art for many years that now two, yes two, important authors are going to be speaking in  Philadelphia in  the next few months. I've gotten both of their most recent books for presents over the last few years and have read each at least twice.

The first is David J. Wagner who will be speaking on his book American Wildlife Art Thursday of next week at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Sad to say I won't be there. I deeply regret it. The one consolation is that a related exhibition will be at the Allentown Art Miseum, beginning the following Sunday, September 29, 2013. I hope to see that show.

If you're not interested in wildlife art, and in particular if you don't consider it to be real art, let me tell you a story. About 25 years ago I happened to notice an Audubon print in the office of one of the bigwigs at my place of work. I took a good look at it while I was in there and was left dumstruck.

Because of the beauty? No. The artistic design? No. The naturalistic accuracy? No. At that point I had two advanced degrees in Studio Art from well known schools. While there I'd also taken a great number of courses in Art History, not because I had to but because I was interested. They started back with Duccio in Siena in the 14th century and ended sometime in  the late 20th century. I'd learned just as much from time spent at museums, particularly the Art Institute of Chicago, but also the San Francisco Museum of Art and other museums in San Francisco and Chicago. I'd spent a lesser amount of time in the  museums of Philadelphia and New York. But all in all I'd seen a lot of art.

So what caused me to be dumbstruck by Audubon? I couldn't figure where to place him. He'd never been mentioned in a single course I'd ever taken, either in studio art or art history. And yet I knew he was famous for something. And as I looked at the large scale print it was striking. It looked like some sort of art. But why didn't it compute in my large intellectual universe of American and European art?

I didn't get an answer and I pretty much forgot about the experience as I carried on with my  large abstract paintings. But once I turned to naturalistic subject matter about 10  years ago, longer if you  include my  insect drawings, I started thinking about this. Above is one of my early forays into bird art from 2008. The really early forays I'm afraid to show!

In fact there was one overwhelming quesiton in my mind: what in the world  was wildlife art? Was it really art? Was it more than cute pet cats and dogs. Was it more than the ego boosting trophy portraits of game bagged by  those who could afford to go on a hunting safari? What in the world was it?

David Wagner's book does a good job of answering that, particularly in t he context of American history, and it's far more complicated than you might think. He does so mainly by focussing on a few major and influential artists. But because everything is firmly rooted in history,  both history with a capital H, and the history  of the ordinary person, or at least the ordinary middle-class person, you can begin to see all the various things wildlife art has been over the years.

He also focuses on the economic aspects of wildlife art, in particular how artists made a living at it and how what they  did, even the best of them, was often dictated to a large extent by  what the public would buy. Art history rarely talks about this: the commercial impact of an artist's production. But it's silly not to. Most artists don't, and never have,  worked in  a vacuum, just waiting for the world to beat a path to their door. In case you think I'm biased in this matter due to my own commerical tendencies I should  say that in fact I'm the  opposite. My work is largely done for myself as the primary patron, and the vague hope that someone else will also enjoy it and be willing to  pay  for it. But this is really a minor method of working throughout art history and wildlife art history.

I could go on and on but suffice it to say that this book covers many if not most of the types of art that the general public, both those appreciateive and those very critical, considers to be wildlife art. I think that as in most things it's incredibly valuable to know the historical context of something,  particulary if is done in  a way that brngs  the past to life and makes it seem relevant to today. In this sense I think the book is tremendously  successful and does a great service to both art and wildlife art.

One  surprising tidbit I picked up. I used to always enjoy the sculptures of lions outside of the Art Institute of Chicago. I never  had the slightest idea who did them. My guess is that this is because I liked them but didn't consider them art.  The book informs me that they are by Edward Kemeys, one of the most important American wildlife sculptors. I was happily surprised to find that his work can also be found in Fairmount Park. As I read further I realized that he summered for awhile in a town not far from  where I grew up, Dwiight, IL. And finally that one of his sculptures stands near the office of my brother in law, also in Illinois. That's the type of richness that I  found in the book on a strictly personal level.

All in all I think it should give everyone who reads it a true appreciation of just what wildlife art is and has been in America. In the end you'll find it has nothing to do with cute art and is just a much real art as anything else.

I'm sure the talk  will just barely touch on all of this given  the shortness of the talk and the length of  the book. But I'm sure it will be well worth your while to stop by.

Great Blue Herons. Composite of two field sketches by Ken Januski.

The second talk is at the Free Library of Philadelphi in November 7, 2013. Author Katrina van Grouw will talk about her book The Unfeathered Bird. This  is a bit more specialized but should be fascinating.

When I took my first foray into bird art in 2006 I knew that I knew nothing. I also knew, from past experience, that most work from photos was deadly. All sense of life seemed missing. For me this presented a problem. How in the world could I work from life? Surely people didn't do that with birds since they never sat still. Eventually I found out that people actually  do work from life but it took a while to discover this, primarily through John Busby's Drawing Birds.

In the meantime I decided that the best I could do was to work from  photos that I'd taken,  much as I disliked working from photos. But that was just the beginning of the problem. All photos almost inevitably have some vague, undelineated areas. If you don't understand the structure of what you're looking at any fudging you do with those vague areas will look just  like that: fudging. I knew this and  hated it in my work.

Even as I started to work from life though  I found that there was only so much I could truly see. I still didn't understand a great deal of the structure of birds. When my  view wasn't perfect my knowledge couldn't fill in  the gaps.

And that's where The Unfeathered Bird has been so valuable to me. Through the author's own artistic drawings we see the structure of a great vareity of birds. In addition she talks about the function of the structure and how it relates to evolution. It really is fascinating reading and I think would be so to anyone who's interested in nature, and  particular in birds. I think the audience really is far broader than just bird artists like myself.

By the way the link to the Free Library above includes a link to the New York Times review of the book. As I read it I was reminded of one of the many bits of knowledge that stood out in my readings. Herons have vertebrae that are kinked at the sixth vertebrae at right angles to the fifth vertebrae above. Sounds esoteric right? But look at my two different field sketches of Great Blue Herons above, both from early September. Yes they do seem to have a kink in the neck at about the same spot. The reason? It allows a hinge like mechanism that they use to shoot their neck out speedily in order to capture prey. Interestingly cormorants have the kink at their eight vertebrae. This is a great example of one of the most exciting things about the book: things that you may have noticed in nature, but that remain at an intuitive or subconscious level, are explained and brought into full  consciousness. All of a sudden you look at herons, in this instance, in a brand new way.

No, I'm not getting any free books or other perks from  either of the authors. I've never met either of them. But I've greatly  enjoyed both  books  and am quite grateful to the authors for writing them. I'd just like to share that excitement with others. And here is the chance to get a taste of each, for free!!

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